Category Archives: video

Schrier’s Technology Wish List for 2015

Predicting the Future

Predicting the Future

It’s that time of year again where the top ten lists for the old year spurt out of pundits’ pens along with generally wrong prognostication predictions (that is “guesses”) for the next year.

I’m not very good at either figuring out which recent changes are most significant (I’ll bet the iPhone was one) or predicting what will happen during my day tomorrow, much less 365 days in the future.

But I’m not too bad at looking at the state of technology – especially in government – and wishing for what I’d like to see in the near future.

And here they are:

  • government (including its workers) embracing the cloud,
  • more women in tech,
  • police body-worn video cameras,
  • video recognition software and
  • last, but most important, wise elected officials.

Government Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Cloud services are the “next hot thing” in technology.  Or they were the next thing hot thing in 2010.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon – along with a number of other technology leaders – believes that very few private companies and governments will operate their own data centers in the future.   This is undeniably true simply because cloud service providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) have a tremendous economy of scale.  AWS probably has more than five million servers worldwide.  Every day – 365 days a year – Amazon Web Services installs more server capacity than the entire Amazon e-tailing enterprise had online in 2004.   And AWS has won notable contracts, such as the contract to operate the CIA’s data center.

Seattle has become a hotbed of cloud technology over the past 18 months.  The Seattle area has a number of the major players in this space such as Amazon, Microsoft Azure, CenturyLink, Google, and now even Dropbox and Apple.  The list includes a number of “niche” companies such as Taser International’s Evidence.com which supports cloud hosting of law enforcement data such as body-worn video data and Socrata, the leading cloud service for government open data.

Yet governments have been slow to adopt cloud technologies.  Governments continue to build and operate their own data centers, containing a few hundred servers, and operate much less efficiently than cloud services providers.   While some governments use cloud services such as Accela for permitting, Workday for human resources, and Socrata for open data, most applications continue to live in expensive government-owned data centers operated by government employees.

Why?

Part of the reason government is slow to adopt the cloud is perceived security concerns:  unless the applications data are on disk arrays and servers which government CIOs can touch and feel and see behind the doors of their very own data centers, these officials feel that, somehow, the hackers will get to them.   This concern is patently absurd, as cloud providers such as Microsoft and Amazon can afford to employ hundreds of security professionals compared to the handful in most governments.

Another problem is potential loss of jobs for workers who presently staff government data centers.   However governments badly need employees who will adapt new technologies for government businesses, who will code new web applications and apps for consumers and businesses to better do business with the government.   Government agencies are chronically short of such developers who, by the way, make a lot more money than data center operators and server administrators.   A retraining program for such government technology employees coupled with a move to the cloud will benefit everyone – taxpayers, businesses, government officials and tech employees.

It’s long past time for a wholesale move of government technology to cloud services.

More Women Coders and Women in Technology

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

I recently had the chance to visit a cloud services development company in the Seattle area.   The company had a variety of very leading edge practices, such as small team environments, self-directed teams, and superior compensation.    They bragged about their employee interview process:  they accepted about 1% of the people who applied or were recruited.

The place was entirely white and Asian-American men.    Well, there was a woman at the front desk.

Now, perhaps it is true that only young males have the interest and ambition to pursue coding.   But having an all young-white-male environment in any business anywhere is not good, for a whole variety of reasons:  all-male business cultures give rise to frat-house-like cultures such as apparently happened at Zillow.    With incomes stagnant or dropping for middle-income people, coding and app development are one of the few areas with tremendous growth in skills and wages – it is important this growth be shared by people of all genders.   Seattle, in particular, seems to have the widest pay gap between women and men.

There are probably many reasons for this disparity.  Perhaps our educational system needs to better emphasize technology careers for girls.   Maybe we need more tech savvy teachers in general, so we don’t have to import so much tech talent via the H1B visa program.  And we certainly need to embrace programs such as the “hour of code” evangelized by Seattle’s code-dot-org.

In fact, linking this problem back to the one above (governments’ need to embrace the cloud), perhaps we should start with an hour of code for all government workers – not just information technology workers, mind you, but ALL government workers.

Ubiquitous Use of Police Body Cams

body-worn-go-pro-wrist

Body Worn Video Camera (sort of) courtesy Go-Pro

President Obama’s December 1 announcement of funding for equipping 50,000 police officers with body-worn video is an innovative approach to improving public safety.   This initiative follows several tragic events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri.   Certainly the idea of recording most police-citizen interactions is appealing.

In a time of polarization about the role of the police in our communities, the use of body-worn video cameras seems to have universal support.   The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dislikes video surveillance in general but likes body-worn cameras because they hold police officers accountable for their actions.   Police Unions like them because they hold citizens accountable for their actions – in two small studies, civilian complaints against police officers declined by 60% to 88% after implementation of body-cams.  Police officers like them because 98% or 99% of what the police do is overwhelming supportive of people in the community – saving drivers during auto accidents, breaking up domestic violence in homes, helping the homeless.  The Department of Justice likes the cameras, as do elected officials.    And they appear to work:  one DOJ study found showed use of force by officers declined by 60%, and violence from citizens against police also declined.   Prosecutors like video, as it helps establish and support criminal charges.

But, as in everything else, implementing body-worn video is not a panacea for improving policing.   I’ve written earlier about the difficulties of implementing such a program, so I won’t rehash those here.    And others have written about a variety of other problems such as the potential for “constant on” video cameras to create a surveillance state worse than even George Orwell envisioned.

Video Recognition and Indexing Software

Video video everywhere, underground and in the air.

Video cameras are becoming more and more ubiquitous.   Most of the population now carries a video camera on their person with them all the time.  Video surveillance cameras are in wide use in both private businesses and by public agencies such as Departments of Transportation.   A billion people use YouTube, which has 4 billion views each day and 100 hours of video uploaded each second.   And that’s just one video site!

But, like the thousands of unindexed photographs most people have lurking somewhere on hard drives and smart phones, video is hard to index and identify for future use.   Content recognition software is still inadequate – basically under development.

Good content recognition software will serve a variety of useful purposes – it could detect unauthorized use of copyrighted material, could recognize individuals and objects thereby indexing the clips, and could form the basis for databases of video metadata.   Such databases would useful for a variety of purposes such as indexing all that video of your family gatherings for the past 20 years, or storage and retrieval of police body-worn camera video.   Video is quite useful in solving crimes – video from private companies were used to solve the Boston Marathon terrorism and police dashcam video caught Christopher Monfort, alleged killer of Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton on October 31, 2009.

A Wise Official

A Wise Official

Like audio or voice-recognition software, which is really still in its infancy, good video recognition software is a two edged sword, presenting privacy concerns as well as the useful purpose.

Conclusion

As always, these technology changes will outstrip the ability of our elected leaders to enact laws to deal with the resulting cultural and legal issues.   We demonstrated that this past year with all the controversies surrounding Uber and other car-sharing services in cities across the globe.   We see it in the constant struggle between public safety and privacy.

My final “wish” is for elected officials wise enough to embrace the positive power of new technologies, while controlling the negative implications.    And having the wisdom to know the difference.

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Filed under employees, future of technology, government, government operations, jobs, video

Inside the First-ever Seattle Police Hackathon

Henry Kroll Demonstrates Redaction

Henry Kroll Demonstrates Redaction

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) held its first-ever hackathon on Friday, December 19th. The event was focused on a single problem: How to redact the video streams recorded by police officers from their dashcams and (soon) body-worn video cameras.

More than 80 people filled the room from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. About one-third were technology professionals or part-timers like Henry Kroll, who makes a living as a salmon fisherman but focuses on video and other technology issues in his spare time.  The remainder were Seattle police and other public officials, a few members of the community, and a number of people from local companies such as Amazon Web Services and Evidence.com, plus a substantial media presence from local television stations and newspapers.

Seven teams made presentations and demonstrations …

Read the rest of this article on Geekwire here.

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Filed under government operations, hackathon, Law Enforcement, Seattle Police, video

Will Obama’s Body-worn Video Cams for Cops really Work?

Body-Worn Video

Seattle Police with Vievu Video Camera

(This post originally appeared in Crosscut here. This version is more expanded and detailed.)

President Obama is redirecting at least $75 million in federal funding to buy body-worn video cameras for up to 50,000 police officers.   This initiative is driven partially by recent shootings of unarmed citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.   Seattle’s Crosscut has extensively reported on this issue.

Since the cameras are relatively inexpensive – a few hundred to a thousand dollars each – police departments around the nation should be able to rapidly and deploy this useful technology, right?

Wrong.

Police Officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has ignited a nationwide interest in the potential use of body-worn video cameras by police.   The Ferguson Police Department itself purchased and deployed such cameras for all of its officers just three weeks after the incident.   Other police departments from around the country joined this the body-cam bandwagon.

In a time of polarization about the role of the police in our communities, the use of body-worn video cameras seems to have universal support.   The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dislikes video surveillance in general but likes body-worn cameras because they hold police officers accountable for their actions.   Police Unions like them because they hold citizens accountable for their actions – in two small studies, civilian complaints against police officers declined by 60% to 88% after implementation of body-cams.   Police management likes to use such video because it helps build public trust in law enforcement by showing accountability.   Many officers like video cameras because most of what they do is helping people – saving lives, performing CPR, protecting the vulnerable during serious crimes such as assaults and domestic violence – but this side of the work is rarely mentioned in the media.  The Department of Justice likes the cameras, as do elected officials.    And they appear to work:  one DOJ study found showed use of force by officers declined by 60%, and violence from citizens against police also declined.   Prosecutors like video, as it helps establish and support criminal charges, although evidence for such support is unclear (DOJ 2014 Study, page 7).

This trend is also good for Seattle, as two of the major companies working on police video technology have offices here.  Seattle’s VIEVU is a major supplier of the cameras themselves.   Taser International is headquartered in Phoenix but its cloud-services operation, evidence.com, is located in downtown Seattle.    Evidence.com stores video and serves it to both police departments and (when authorized) others such as attorneys and citizens.

The trouble is, it is difficult to widely deploy body-worn video cameras given a wide variety of technological and legal challenges.   Here are a few:

  1. Deploying cameras involves almost every unit within a police department. Besides patrol, police management will be involved, as will internal affairs, the legal staff, technology staff, evidence custodians, civilian staff involved with public disclosure and a number of outside agencies such as courts, prosecutors and public defenders.  This takes a lot of time and effort,
  2. Body-cams have an effect on the efficiency of patrol officers. On one hand police reports may be easier to write and charges easier to file because video shows at least part of the police interactions, statements by victims and witnesses, at the arrest.   On the other hand officers and supervisors will spend time reviewing video, a new task in their workdays.
  3. Body-cam video creates a huge volume of digital material. Seattle Police, for example, has a total of over 500 patrol officers.  If each officer works 40 hours a week, and the body-cam video is constantly recording, this represents 20,000 hours of video a week.  Of course most video systems are set up to record only at certain times, for example when the officer turns on the recording or (in the case of dashcam video) when the overhead lights are turned on during an incident or traffic stop.  But officer discretion also presents a number of problems.  Often incidents happen very fast – an officer sees a crime in progress and immediately responds to stop or apprehend the offender.  Officers may not have time to stop and turn on the video system because to do so places either the officer or a citizen in danger.   No matter what the policy for having the video operational, at the very least hundreds of hours of video will be produced each week.
  4. Police work occurs during abysmal conditions: rain, snow, traffic noise, night-time.   Audio and video quality often will be poor.
  5. Body-cam video presents major technology challenges. There are a whole variety of these, for examples:
    • Maintaining an adequate amount of disk storage;
    • Acquiring fast servers to immediately serve the video on demand;
    • Backing up the video to preserve it in case of disk storage failure;
    • Protection from intentional or inadvertent alteration;
    • Protection from intentional or inadvertent access, e.g. hacking or access by unauthorized employees or the public prior to redaction;
    • Creating a system to manage the video. Often this might include disk storage on the officer to hold the video, followed by offloading the video to a computer in the car, followed by offloading the video to data center servers when the car returns to a secure area.
    • Adding metadata so the video is easily searchable. Metadata attached to each video clip might include date, time, officers’ names, victims’ names, witness’ names, and case numbers.
  6. Video presents a major public disclosure issue. The Washington Public Records Act and the State Supreme Court’s decision in the case “KOMO-TV versus the Seattle Police Department” state these videos are public, except when a case is under investigation.   But such video captures, real-time, the trauma of often-innocent citizens who are crime victims, victims of domestic violence and rape, having a medical emergency and who are being detained or arrested – often when charges are later dropped.   The videos include statements from witnesses, victims, confidential informants and sometimes attorney-client privileged conversations.  A minority of the Supreme Court, in the KOMO decision, felt Washington’s Privacy Laws took precedence and agreed such video should not be released.  But the majority disagreed.   Public disclosure is the major reason most Washington police agencies do not widely employ body-worn video.  Baltimore has created a specific police task force to address privacy issues and others associated with body-cams.   Seattle has a digital privacy initiative to address not just police and body-cam issues, but privacy issues in general.
  7. Seattle Police Hackathon

    Seattle Police Hackathon

    Video requires redaction before release.  A sergeant with the Albuquerque Police Department observed that “officers a lot of times are seeing people on the worst day of their lives, and we’re capturing that on video that’s now a public record.” (DOJ Study, page 27.)  Common sense as well as privacy dictates every video should be reviewed and redacted.  This includes either getting permission of most of the citizens in the video to release it, or blurring faces and removing audio before release.  Indeed, changes to Washington State’s public records act or privacy laws may be required to deal with these redaction and public disclosure issues.  Redaction technology to reliably blur individual faces or otherwise redact video does not exist.  Redaction must be done manually, a time consuming and expensive process.   (Note:  the Seattle Police Department is conducting a hackathon on December 19, 2014, hoping to enlist the help of tech-savvy citizens to address the problem of redaction.)

  8. Unredaction may be an issue.  Technology allows at least partial redaction of video;   but similar technologies may be available to unredact video, re-instating the privacy concerns.
  9. Police departments need to develop a whole variety of policies to address the issues listed above and others.   Many of these issues are quite thorny.
    • Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson just released an opinion about whether an officer needs to ask permission and a citizen needs to give consent before their interaction is video-recorded. According to that opinion, police do not have to ask permission, even to record video inside a private residence.  Citizens may act differently – and behave better – if they know a recording is in progress.   Or elected officials may decide they want officers to ask permission before making recordings inside a private home.
    • As another example, basic facial recognition technology now exists. Should all police-recorded video be sent through facial recognition software to identify the individuals who have been recorded?
    • Should officers be allowed to turn the video on and off? If so, under what circumstances?
    • Such questions require serious deliberation.
  10. Deployment of body-worn video often requires re-negotiation of the police union contract, and negotiation of the policies with community organizations such as the ACLU.
  11. Officers must be trained not only in the operation of the body-cam video, but also in all the policies for managing video and using it as evidence.   All this training means officers will, again, spend less time on the street.

Body-worn video cameras for public safety are an admirable technology.   Body-cams for police officers are needed in America today.    And there is almost universal agreement they should be deployed.

But, as with many technologies, the cultural, political, policy and technical impediments are significant.    Communities need to understand all the ramifications, and elected officials need to be ready to pay the costs in resources, dollars and time to enable an effective deployment.

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Filed under Law Enforcement, Seattle Police, video

– Improving Govt Health with a Fiber Diet

Louisiana Immersive Tech Enteprise - click to see more

Louisiana Immersive Tech Enterprise

I was honored to be in Lafayette, Louisiana, this past week for Fiber-Fete. Lafayette is just finishing a City-owned fiber optic network which reaches every home and business. Fiber-Fete was an international gathering to celebrate the innovative work led by Parish President (Mayor) Joey Durel and his team of people from business, non-profits, education, healthcare and government.

Lafayette’s fiber network boasts speeds of 10 megabits per second, both ways, to every home and business in the City, for $29 a month, and 50 megabits both ways for $58. Speeds of 100 megabits or even a gigabit per second are possible very soon. The FCC’s recently released national broadband plan set a goal for much of the United States to achieve such speeds by 2020. But Lafayette virtually has it now, in 2010.

During the conference, one of our breakout groups brainstormed a set of ideas for using this network to improve government and governing. Here are a few of our ideas.

A Mini-Connect Communication Device. The telephone is almost ubiquitous in American homes, with 95% or more of homes having a phone. Land-line penetration is dropping now, of course, as many people use only their cell phones or use voice-over-Internet connections via their computers. An essential device for future premises certainly seems to be a mini-comm, possibly modeled after the mini-tel which was widely deployed in France a few years ago. The mini-comm would be a voice telephone, videophone with a small screen, and potentially have connections for a TV and keyboard to allow it to be used as a web browser to connect to the fiber network. Such a device needs to be cheap and probably subsidized so every home, regardless of income, has one.

The mini-comm has many potential applications beyond phone, videophone and web browser. It would have batteries so it would function even during extended power outages due to natural disasters. It could be activated by government preceding or during such disasters to alert residents to an oncoming hurricane, or the need to evacuate, with further instructions on what to do. It might even have a wi-fi connection so that students who bring laptops home from school (school-issued laptops for all students are another great idea) have connectivity at home.

Video and Web via TV. Ideally, every television set in a home will eventually be internet-enabled with a built-in video camera and web browser. Certainly the latest generation of set-top boxes for cable TV have such functions built in.

Video 311 and 911. With the devices above, anyone who calls 911 with an emergency or 311 for non-emergency access to government services could also activate a two-way video function. For 911, this means the 911 center could view a burglary in progress or domestic violence situation, and help the responding police officers understand what is happening. For medical emergencies the 911 center might be able to activate monitoring devices and understand the known health issues of the caller, thereby better directing care over the mini-comm or to responding emergency medical personnel. Residents might be able to transact a variety of business over the phone/data link, including consultation about potential building plans and permits, more accurate understanding of utility billing issues (especially if smartgrid or automated water/gas/electric metering infrastructure is in place). And even for routine calls or complaints, we could put a “face” on government via a live video chat with a customer service agent.

Public health nurse or Probation Officer virtual visits. Public health officers, human services and probation officers often have an obligation to check upon or visit clients. With the mini-comm or other two way video devices, such visits might be conducted over the network. This would be especially useful if people are quarantined for pandemic flu or other diseases. But it could includes home health monitoring for seniors, and monitoring of people on probation or any reason, but especially for alcohol or drug abuse and sex offenses.

Enhancing public meetings. Public meetings of city/county councils and other public boards or commissions are almost unchanged from 250 years ago. To attend such a meeting, people travel to the meeting room, wait in line, and speak for a closely-timed two or three minutes. Essentially the public meeting becomes a series of usually un-related mini-speeches. With a fiber network, there are some opportunities to enhance such meetings. At a minimum, people who are unable to travel due to work or childcare or disabilities could participate remotely. But using tools such as Google moderator or Ideascale or Microsoft’s Town Hall, participants could also submit questions remotely, and then rank them. The top ranked (“crowdsourced”) questions could then be asked. Indeed, with high-quality video, the people who submitted the highest ranking questions could ask the question her/himself. Meetings could also be enhanced as viewers are able to see PowerPoint or video presentations, or link to web-based documents, at the same time they are watching the meeting.

Virtual Neighborhoods to visualize redesigning a town or do community or neighborhood planning. Lafayette has Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE), where innovative uses for 3D imaging are on development and display. Using these technologies along with some existing data such as Google Maps “bird’s eye view”, Microsoft’s Photosynth and digital orthophotograhy, we could create virtual representations of neighborhoods. Neighborhood planning groups could use these technologies to visualize how their neighborhood would appear with certain changes such as a new apartment building, or a boulevard, or different proposed configurations for a park.

These are just a few of the ideas we brainstormed for government use of such high speed networks. Other Fiber-Fete workgroups addressed uses for education, libraries, utilities, energy, business and much more.

Several facts are certain. Lafayette is the center of innovative Cajun culture plus great Cajun food and music. And this mid-sized city in Louisiana, is leading the nation with this innovative network. In ten years, the applications developed and tested there will be used throughout the nation.

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Filed under broadband, cable, community technology, customer service, fiber, internet, Uncategorized, video

– Schrier to the FCC: Broadband

Fiber Broadband - Click for more

Fiber Broadband - Click for more

This morning the FCC will start a year-long process to craft a “National Broadband Plan for our Future”.

The agenda is here and here’s Ars Technica’s insightful view of the process. The meeting can be viewed live at 10:00 AM (EDT) here, and the video record should be posted at that site after the meeting is finished.

I’ve blogged a number of times about broadband and how I feel the only real “broadband” is fiber-to-the-premise. I feel the United States is in danger of becoming a “third world country” in broadband networks.

Here’s what I’ll tell the FCC Commissioners today (with a little luck, and FTP/Video technology willing):


Good morning Commissioners.

I’m Bill Schrier, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Seattle, and I bring you greetings from “the other Washington”.

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Commission on broadband and its effect upon economic development and jobs.

Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle is the incoming President of the United States Conference of Mayors and has been an outspoken proponent of broadband – and specifically fiber to the premise – since 2005 when a citizen’s commission recommended creation of a symmetric, 25 megabits per second or faster fiber network.

We feel such a network will bring a fundamental change America’s economy – it will affect our way of working and playing as profoundly as did the telegraph, telephone, railroad, and original Internet.

We believe a fiber network is an investment which will last 50 years or more

We believe such a fiber network will carry two-way high-definition video streams. This network can convert every high-definition television set into a video conferencing station. And this addresses a fundamental human need – to actually see our co-workers and friends.

For the first time, working at home – true telework – will be possible because workers can connect with each other and see each other in real time. Whole technology businesses will collaborate on developing 21st century products. Students will be able to attend classes and interact with their classmates from home. Quality of life will improve as families scattered across a region can talk together while actually seeing each other.

Such a network can significantly reduce commute trips and travel. This, in turn, reduces our dependence upon imported oil and reduces the production of greenhouse gases.

You are launching this momentous task of creating a national broadband strategy. I urge you to think of fiber broadband with two-way video and similar applications as a fundamentally new economic network for America. I urge you to think in decades, not years. And, again, on behalf of the people of Seattle and Mayor Greg Nickels, thank you for listening.


I also had an ex parte meeting regarding the definition of “broadband” with FCC staff on March 31st. The public record of my statements at the meeting are here.

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Filed under broadband, cable, economy, fcc, video

– U.S.: Third World Broadband

Fiber Broadband - click for map

Fiber Broadband

The new fedgov stimulus bill was signed into law and it contains $6.3 billion to expand broadband in the United States.  Hooray!  The problem of Internet access in the United States is solved, right?

Hah!  Not by a long-shot.

The U. S. is 15th in the world in broadband penetration.  And our primary technologies used for broadband are still cable modems and phone companies’ Digital Subscriber Link (DSL).  Cable modems give relatively high speed – 6 to 30 megabits per second, but that speed is shared among dozens or hundreds of households.  And it is typically much slower “upload” rather than download.
DSL gives a dedicated connection to each user, but still, typically, at relatively low speeds such as 1, 2 or 7 megabits per second, and, again, much slower on the upload rather than download.

Now, you might think “gee a million bits a second is really fast”.  Yes, yes it is, if you are reading static websites or doing e-mail.  But the future of the “net” is video – and not the grainy, jerky (no pun intended), YouTube variety, but HDTV.  And HDTV requires 6 megabits per second each way.  Read on …

Most developed nations deploying “broadband” are NOT doing cable modems or coax or DSL or copper.  They are deploying fiber optic cable to each household and business. S eoul and Tokyo have deployed.  Amsterdam and Paris and Venice and Singapore are deploying.

A few forward thinking cities in the United States are – on their own – also deploying fiber to each premise.  Lafayette, Louisiana, Clarksville and Chattanooga and Pulaski and Jackson Tennessee are examples.  (See a great map of fiber deployments here.)

The beauty of fiber broadband is really high speed – 100 megabits-per-second or more, and true, two-way, symmetric networking.  These are networks capable of downloading whole movies in HDTV in a few minutes.  Or networks which can stream two-way HDTV so that every home/business can be an HDTV studio or a video conference/telework center or give people a phenomenal new Internet gaming experience.

Think about working at home, and joining meetings via HDTV video conference with quality so great you can actually watch your co-workers sweating.  With HDTV quality you can actually participate!  Or how about having your high school kid join a virtual HDTV classroom for that college-credit advanced placement class.  Or having your grandparents join you and their grandkids for dinner – several nights a week – using HDTV.  Think of the difference in their lives (maybe NOT yours!).
These same networks can be used to manage the energy use and carbon footprint of homes and businesses and buildings.  These are networks capable of telehealth and telemedicine – visiting your nurse or doctor from home and they can SEE you in HDTV.

And what will the fedgov broadband stimulus deliver?  Well, there is $2.5 billion for broadband to “rural areas” via the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Services.

In terms of urban areas, a lot of the requirements are still to be determined before $4.7 billion in stimulus grants are awarded.  The funds need to be spent in unserved or underserved areas.  But what does that mean?  Compared to the fiber deployments being undertaken elsewhere in the world, most places in the United States – other than those served by Verizon FIOS – are “underserved” because we only have DSL and cable.  How fast is this proposed stimulus-funded broadband?  Is it 256kb per second, or a megabit or 100 megabits?  Is it symmetric or is a very slow upload speed acceptable?

The fedgov NTIA ( National Telecommunications Infrastructure Administration) has published in the Federal Register an extensive list of such questions for us all to answer to help design their program.

I certainly hope this great new stimulus package will not just try to extend DSL or cable Internet and call that “broadband”.  I hope the NTIA and Agriculture stay true to the Obama administration’s goals of being bold, inventive, and innovative.  And, with this broadband stimulus, they don’t try to make the United States a “better” third world nation in terms of broadband, but rather sponsor projects which show the way for the future of a truly high-speed, two-way-HDTV-networked world.

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Filed under broadband, Fedgov, fiber, video

– Two Way Presidential Debates

The Famous Five O'Clock Shadow Debate

The Famous Five O

A highlight of the recent Presidential campaign were the three Presidential debates. In my neighborhood, our good friends Teresa and Joe (the marketeer, not the plumber) sponsored debate parties, which were a great neighborhood-building event. We crowded into their living room around the big-screen HDTV, and alternately cheered and cried as each debate proceeded. We made dozens of pithy and funny comments (all our comments were both pithy and funny, although some were in questionable taste). We suggested pointed comebacks for the candidates. We had fun. We were that most basic unit of democracy – neighbors and friends.

The 2008 debates pioneered new uses of technology. In at least one primary debate, questions came from YouTube. MySpace and MTV hosted one-candidate town halls with questions submitted via instant messaging and e-mail. Twitter was used extensively, I’m sure, for debate comments. And with the 140 character limit, I’m sure the comments were concise, if not pithy! CNN even tried to gauge voter sentiment, second-by-second during the debate, via a set of graphs powered by three groups of captive voters, a tactic which was interesting but disparaged by most observers.

Televised debates have been a staple of presidential campaigns since the infamous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first of which was lost by Tricky Dick’s five o’clock shadow. In these “hi-tech” debates of 2008, I see the seeds of an interesting technology future for our still-young democracy.

My initial idea is a relatively simple one, but hard to realize. My friends Joe and Teresa have a widescreen HDTV. My household has an HDTV. With the digital transition in February, 2009, even more households will have digital or HD televisions.

A few months ago I purchased an HD-camcorder at Radio Shack for $200. I just use it to take video of my three-year old, but suppose I hooked it up to the HDTV, and suddenly we had a two-way HD video stream? And we did that in every household. And suddenly, instead of having a Democracy where we observe a debate, we could participate in it. Instead of having hundreds of people drive (polluting the air) to a town hall meeting to interact with candidates, we’d have a virtual town hall with HD video feeds from households all over the City (Think “second life”, but with real faces instead of avatars.)

Now, clearly that won’t work with a Presidential debate with 70 million households watching. But there are a LOT of elected officials in this country. There are debates for Governor, Mayor, City Council and even Sewer Commissioner. Constituents are interested and sometimes quite passionate about these races, and may be quite interested in participating from their living rooms.

Of course two-way HDTV requires bandwidth. A LOT of bandwidth. And present DSL or coaxial cable networks won’t support that sort of two-way bandwidth from dozens or hundreds of houses in a neighborhood at once. Fiber-to-the-premise will be needed, and I suspect that will still be somewhat rare for some time to come, unless you are lucky enough to live in a place served by Verizon FIOS or a municipal utility such as Lafayette, Louisiana, or Clarksville, Tennessee. Those cities will have a bit more democracy than the rest of us, I guess.

1960 was the year of debate cosmetics (five o’clock shadow), 2000 was the year of the candidate websites, 2004 was Howard Dean’s year of Internet organizing, and 2008 was the year of IM and twittering. I’m not sure what new technology will take 2012 by storm, but I’m certain that eventually two-way HDTV will make us all active participants in elections.

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Filed under elections, fiber, history of technology, video